Serbia and the refugee crisis: the unaccompanied children are the most vulnerable

Photography credits: Fotomovimento/Flickr

Source: Network of Organizations for Children of Serbia – NOCS

Belgrade, 29 September 2015

Given the refugee crisis in the center of which Serbia currently finds itself, the Network of Organizations for Children of Serbia – NOCS is pointing to the particularly difficult position of children who are additionally vulnerable and exposed to danger regardless of whether they are travelling with or without company.

Children refugees who are passing through Serbia and the region unaccompanied or separated from their parents, legal guardians or other persons responsible for them, find themselves in an unknown environment without basic living conditions, among people whose language they do not understand, and are thus exposed to higher risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, child labour, human trafficking and various forms of maltreatment and violence. This situation calls for immediate and systematic action both in Serbia and in the region.

According to the UNHCR, 3,007 underage refugees unaccompanied by parents sought asylum in Serbia from 2008 to 2014, and from the beginning of 2015, the number of unaccompanied underage refugees in the West Balkans was 3,188. The constant increase of the official number of unaccompanied underage refugees and the children separated from their parents, as well as the inability of finding out the hidden figure which must be significantly higher (children accompanied by people other than their parents, children claiming to be of age) call for immediate mobilizing of all available resources in order to protect them and their rights.

The Serbian Law on Asylum recognizes a child/ underage unaccompanied person and defines him/her as “a foreigner under the age of 18 who upon the arrival to the Republic of Serbia is not accompanied by a parent or a legal guardian.” The very definition of the unaccompanied underage refugee in our legislature is dealing only with formalities, unaware of the risks underage refugees are exposed to.

For this reason it is necessary to establish clear procedures when dealing with underage refugees which require:

  • the cooperation of different sectors and agencies, always aiming at the best interests of the children;
  • increasing the capacities centers for social work in Serbia which have never encountered the phenomenon of similar proportions so far;
  • developing guidelines for recognizing an unaccompanied underage refugee who is suffering/ has suffered some kind of maltreatment or neglect;
  • defining exact procedures following the identification of the underage refugee who has suffered/is suffering from violence;
  • prepare all the systems for dealing with the underage refugees primarily with children, and deal with their migration status later;
  • the creation of shelters for unaccompanied underage refugees where they could be accommodated and where they can have their basic human rights guaranteed by both international and domestic laws.

We commend the efforts our government has invested in solving this refugee crisis and in alleviating the hardship these people and their children are experiencing while passing through our country. We especially commend the efforts of the humane people, both individuals and organizations, which are selflessly involved in organizing and providing necessary help. However, bearing in mind the escalating proportions of this crisis, as well as the upcoming winter, it is necessary to invest additional efforts in improving and empowering the asylum system at national level, as well as the refugee aid capacities according to the needs of the children and their families.